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How to turn your PhD thesis into a book

As an OUP editor who has also completed a PhD, one of the most common questions I am asked is how to turn a thesis into a book. My only-slightly-flippant answer is don’t.

Rather than a revision of their PhD, I would encourage first-book authors to treat their fledgling monograph as a brand-new project.

In a 2015 interview for Vogue, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke about revising Steering the Craft, her classic handbook for aspiring fiction writers, for the twenty-first century. ‘It’s substantially the same book,’ she says, ‘but almost every sentence is rewritten.’ This oxymoron draws attention to the slippery distinction between the work of revising and the work of rewriting. Far from being a distinct undertaking with a separate purpose, revising often shades off into rewriting by an almost imperceptible degree.

For former doctoral students, this is no bad thing. A PhD thesis and an academic monograph have entirely different purposes—trying to turn the former into the latter via a process of revision can feel like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

At the most basic level, a thesis is a document written to pass an exam and to prove the writer’s skill as a researcher. In keeping with this purpose, it is written for a readership of two or—if we’re being generous—three people: your pair of examiners and your primary supervisor. More people will likely read parts of your thesis, although they are not the target readership. A monograph, on the other hand, is written to communicate important and useful research to the widest possible specialist readership. Each of the two documents’ purposes is entirely different, and everything about their construction must feed into that purpose, or they are not doing their job very well.

Before you begin

It’s worth pausing to think whether your thesis needs to become a monograph to advance your career. In certain disciplines, a couple of peer-reviewed research articles in reputable journals is just as, if not more, advantageous than a monograph with an equally reputable publisher.

There’s also the effort-to-reward ratio to consider; turning two thesis chapters into research articles may be less time consuming than turning your entire thesis into a monograph. Besides, having some disciplinary journal publications to your name is going to make a publisher far more interested in your first book, which can now be based on new research unrelated to your thesis. I am reminded of Pat Thomson’s sage advice that ‘all PhDs can generate some refereed journal articles. But not all PhDs have enough in them to become a book.’

Turning your PhD thesis into a monograph should not be seen as the default course of action, so carefully consider the alternatives before embarking upon this route. But if you still want to, here are a few things you should consider:

Authorial voice

With your PhD in the bag, you have proven your skill as an academic researcher. Congratulations!

Your authorial voice should now feature more prominently in your writing and your own original interpretation should be prioritised over the views of your predecessors. This approach is very different to writing a thesis, where your interpretation must be couched in quotations from secondary sources. You no longer need to provide an audit trail to such a great extent, and monographs feature far fewer secondary quotations—especially long block quotations—than are commonly found in theses. Similarly, the number of secondary citations should be significantly reduced to only cover essential reference points. The spotlight should be firmly on your original ideas and your discussion of primary sources, with far fewer words devoted to quoting and evaluating the contributions of others.

Literature review

To put it simply, a monograph shouldn’t have one. Building on the previous point about authorial voice, the literature review is the prime example of providing an audit trail that simply isn’t expected in a monograph. Remove it! Then, in its place, summarise in one or two pages the most important through-lines found in that literature that are of direct relevance to your arguments. Your readers will assume you’ve done your homework (that was the PhD thesis) and you only need to introduce them to the secondary sources that are essential to following the argument of your monograph. For example, if your work is interdisciplinary and you’re pitching the book to a publisher’s disciplinary list, you might need to summarise the key findings of a particular school of thought from outside the list’s ‘home’ discipline.

Market

Unlike a PhD thesis, a monograph needs to sell copies. Even not-for-profit university presses are required to break even, and a publisher won’t take a chance on a monograph unless they consider it a safe investment. It is down to you to convince them that there is a market for your work and that you write in a way that effectively captures that readership. You must be certain of your book’s selling points and ensure they are effectively communicated in your book proposal and woven into every section of your draft manuscript or writing sample.

One example: publishers are increasingly asked to think about how ‘adoptable’ someone’s book project is, meaning: can we picture it being assigned as required reading in undergraduate or postgraduate courses? For this to be the case, individual chapters should be concise and able to be assigned as standalone reading. Jargon should be kept to a minimum. Anything even slightly tangential should be cut.

Style

Pat Thomson says that converting your PhD thesis into a monograph is ‘a time to hone your writing craft’. What she means by this, I think, is that you have the opportunity and responsibility to learn how to become a better communicator. Your PhD examiners are obliged to read your thesis no matter how engaging they find it, whereas if the readers of your monograph find it unengaging, they will simply stop reading. Academic writing can be so much more than dry, expository prose, and this is a time to stretch your creative writing muscles in a way you weren’t able to do while writing your thesis. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft provides some narrative techniques and writing exercises to help you do this.

Where to begin?

My advice would be to begin at the end. The conclusion of your PhD thesis probably contains your most valuable insights, most useful innovations, and most compelling answers to the all-important questions of ‘so what?’ and ‘why should anyone care?’. These diamonds in the rough can form the building blocks of a monograph that should be thought of not as a revision of your thesis, but as a brand-new project that builds upon your previous research. This new project can draw from some of the most exciting parts of your thesis, though it should be more than just repackaged doctoral research. And it will be far more attractive to a publisher, not to mention enjoyable to write.

Featured image by Element5 Digital via Unsplash.

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